Questioning - Part XXII

It was without any fanfare that the Questioners left Metamor that next morning. Those that saw them leaving stayed indoors, lest they give those black robed priests a reason to stay. The frightful black carriage rode down those cobblestoned lanes alone, the creaking of their wheels the only sound that accompanied them. The sky was leaden gray, the fog having finally completely lifted and pushed off to the North. A warm breeze came up from the South, gently snapping pinions upon the watch towers.

On any road through Metamor, no activity was present while the Questioners passed. Once they were out of sight, the Keepers slowly emerged, like rabbits testing the air to see if the wolf was truly gone. Many Keepers wished for the fog to return, that way they would not have to see the black carriage at all. Most simply shuttered their windows that morning so that they would not even risk a glimpse. Metamor had become a city holding its breath.

The only ones who were out that morning were the scouts. Neither Misha nor George had been happy to hear of Duke Thomas’s orders. After the horse lord had explained his reasoning to both, they complied as best they could. Every scout that could be mustered had been, and they lined the road Southwards out of the Valley. Some, by order of the scout masters, remained visible so that the Questioners would know they were being protected and could vouch for that to Yesulam. But most stayed hidden within the trees and dells, keeping their eyes, ears, and nose attuned to the arrival of interlopers.

The Yesbearn rode upon the wagon, their gaunt expressions noting the empty city. Their eyes discerned all that came before them as they led the team of horses through those city streets. Wordlessly they went about their task, speaking neither to each other nor to the horses. Even after they came before the gate in the walls, they spoke not a single word. The guards at the walls opened the gate quickly, fearfully averting their eyes as that black wagon passed through. As quickly as they could, they shut it behind the Questioners, each praying that they did not change their minds and seek entrance once more.

The town of Euper was just as quiet, silent as a tomb, while the Questioners passed through. In silence many of the townsfolk rejoiced at the leaving of those unwanted guests, those black priests of Yesulam. They wondered who the Questioners had brought before them to suffer terrible fates at their hands. What had they learned, and what would they say? Many feared that their homes would be threatened anew now by Yesulam. Though the people in the Valley of Metamor had so many enemies as it was, the thought of a whole faith being turned against them was horrifying, especially amongst the Followers.

Duke Thomas had asked Malisa and Thalberg to have heralds sent out proclaiming that the Questioners would exonerate Metamor when they returned to Yesulam. But they were not going to go out until the noon hour. Thus, many, averting their eyes as that wagon creaked past, saw images of legions more returning, flanked by hundreds of knights and foot soldiers intent on finishing the job that Nasoj had never been able to accomplish. Even some on that black wagon conjured such images to their minds.

But it was not long before the wagon had rolled out of Euper and began its slow trek through the Valley. The progress of the day could not be measured by the sun, as it remained hidden behind the mass of grey clouds looming well overhead. They were thick clouds, smooth so that little difference could be seen in their underside. Just a churning mass of various shades of grey, and they leached the colour from all of the land, muting the blooms of the Spring’s first flowers.

Scouts watched over that black carriage, the red cross staring back at them mockingly. Some wished to bring harm to the black robed priests, but their better sense prevailed. For most the act of surveying the valley and protecting it was one of pleasant delight. Their job was one that they greeted with joy, a duty they loved and would abandon only when their bones were too old to lift a sword or loose an arrow properly. Yet on that day they each yearned to quit the field and return to the safety of Metamor. They had no wish to protect the Questioners, but no choice to do anything else.

They each knew that they should be glad that the Questioners were finally leaving Metamor. It seemed an eternity since they had arrived, even though it had been less than a week. Yet, instead of relief, they each felt their hearts pounding in trepidation. The passage of the Questioners was chilling, as if a spectre had risen from the grave and was now whistling within their ears, prickling their fur. Even after they had passed southwards, they only felt a sickness in their belly, as if they had not eaten in weeks. There was little joy that day.

And as the Questioners continued on their way, leaving the Valley at long last as night began to settle over the Valley, the people of Metamor could only celebrate by taking a bit more wine with their evening meal.

“You want me to what?” Andwyn asked skeptically as he surveyed the alligator with small red eyes. Though the bat could not see very well, he did like to make sure those he spoke to thought he could. Thalberg was still not used to the surveying orbs, but he maintained his composure. It was his lot in life never to be disturbed by those he spoke with. Even those that should be friends.

But Thalberg had not known the head of Intelligence very long. Before he’d taken over for Phil in late January, he’d just been one of the rabbit’s better spies, keeping an eye on wayward merchants. But now, he was part of the inner circle here at Metamor.

Taking a deep breath, Thalberg repeated his request. “I wish for you to have Duke Thomas watched.”

“Absolutely out of the question,” Andwyn said, gesticulating wildly with one wing. “I will not and never order any of my men to spy on the Duke. I simply will not do that. And they would not do it.”

Thalberg growled. “I do not ask this of you lightly. It pains me to ask it of you. I dread to think how far I must have come to ask any to spy on my liege, a friend of mine for many years.” He paused, his mind tumbling back down through their youth growing up, watching over the young Duke to be. There were few people who had known Thomas as well as he. And that was why he had to come to Andwyn with this near treasonous request.

“But it must be done. There is something wrong with Thomas. Something dreadfully wrong, and I dare not guess what it might be. I thought perhaps he was simply not sleeping well at first. But even after he began taking the draught, there have been things going on that disturb me. He is not himself, and I want to know why.”

Andwyn crossed his wings before himself as he stood upon his perch. Thalberg knew that the bat preferred to hang from his ceiling in the small dark room he used as his office, he could see the many small hooks he used for that purpose above him. But those the bat conversed with found it difficult to speak to him that way. “Why not simply ask him?” Andwyn asked, flat nose twitching slightly.

Thalberg pulled his scarlet robes tighter about him as if they were his own wings. “I have. Several times now. Thomas is...” He did not wish to say it, the very thought of it painful. “Thomas is keeping this from me. It is changing him, but he is keeping it from me. And I am not the only one who sees it. Malisa has as well, but she has not the temerity to ask you to spy on her father. I am asking that.”

“I already told you,” Andwyn said, his voice grave and testy, “I will not order any of my men to spy on Duke Thomas.”

“Then will you do it?” Thalberg asked, his voice heavy, the surliness he was famous for sounding deeply. “Will you personally watch over his grace to see what if anything is leading to his change? He is not the same man I have known all my life. I need to know why. Will you help?”

The bat appeared to ponder the Steward’s request for a long time, his wingtips fluttering. He brought the small hands he bore upon those wings up to his face, touching over his flat nose, and short wrinkled muzzle. His eyes closed, though his huge ears still were turned to the giant reptile. Then, a slight shudder seemed to ripple across the dirty brown fur of his back, and the bat looked up once more.

“I will watch over him when I can. I will not order any of my men to do so. If we are caught, then it will simply be us that has done our Duke grievous injury. Is that not so?”

Thalberg nodded, his muzzle slipping into a reptilian grin. “Yes. Let that be so. Thank you, Andwyn. I do not like this any more than you, but it has to be.”

The bat nodded. “Then let it be over swiftly. Now, leave me, I must think.”

Thalberg bowed low, nodding and slipped out of the bat’s room. His whole body trembled, but at last he’d set in motion what he’d been thinking about for the last few days. Perhaps now, with the Questioners were gone a few hours before, and with this matter settled for the moment, he’d be able to attend to his duties once more.

After he’d had a stiff drink at least. Maybe two.

Thomas was buoyant that evening. Sometime that afternoon, he’d sent his page off on an errand while he rested. Of course, he did not rest, but crept down the numerous passageways hidden within the Keep for his private use. Under that familiar flagstone he’d found a message from his Dame Bryonoth. His tail had twitched, his flesh trembling in exhilaration as he had read the note. She wanted to bring him some solace for the past few days, and would see him that night. He would not be the Duke that evening, but Toumoth, a simple work horse.

There was little official business to attend to that day. Few Keepers wanted to do anything but wait until they were sure the Questioners were gone and would not return. Even the foreigners staying upon their soil were reticent, remaining in their rooms at the various Inns, quiet as dormice. Both Thalberg and Malisa were occupied with their own pursuits, and so they left him be, which was exactly as he wanted it. For the first time in a week, he would be Toumoth again, and it felt glorious.

He had barely been able to contain his excitement the rest of the day, worries about what Dame Bryonoth might do completely gone from his mind. He kept a dour expression as it was what everyone else was wearing. The horse lord had no wish to let others think he was acting strangely after all. And he desperately wanted to be Dame Bryonoth’s horse once more. He wished to cart onions for her, wished to do whatever she wanted him to do.

It was all the more pressing to him because he knew he would not be able to be her horse during the Equinox festival. During those days he would need to be seen as the Duke by the people of Metamor. But once it was over, he could just be a horse again. The very thought of it filled his mind with scents of fresh hay and grass, succulent apples and clear water. He could imagine the feel of the curry along his flanks, and the combs through his mane and tail. The weight of the yoke upon his neck, and the load that he would pull through town. The cobblestones beneath four hooves, and the sounds of people milling about town, each seeing him as nothing but an animal.

So, when Dame Bryonoth came to the alcove that night and ordered him to undress, Toumoth did so without a second thought, his heart pounding joyously. She slipped the harness over his face, and the fire coursed through his veins, leaving only a horse in his place. She led him once more to the stables through the darkening night. There, quietly humming, she began to curry him, removing the halter that he might feed upon those oats.

In quiet serenity they shared that stable. A few other ostlers came through every once in a while, but they paid little attention to the knight and the horse she was attending. After a few hours of simple grooming, Bryonoth set aside the curry, and took something out of her pack. It was a bottle of ink, a quill, and a large piece of parchment. She set them on the hay and then retrieved a small three legged stool.

She patted his cheek, and crooned, “Good boy, Toumoth,” as if she were speaking to an animal. He felt an elated bit of pride at that, his tail flicking back and forth. Setting the stool down at his side, she sat upon it, and then took his foreleg and lifted it back. Toumoth redistributed his weight, as she placed the parchment atop his hoof, and traced the outline with the quill. The knight continued to hum as she worked. One by one, she drew the outlines to all four of his hooves.

Toumoth did not want to think about what that meant. He preferred to remain in a blissful animal ignorance, simply chewing his oats and enjoying her company. Yet, this was a thought that even he, in his willful bestial state could not prevent from coming into his mind. She was going to shoe him. She now could have the blacksmith make horseshoes the right size for him. Once that was done, he’d be shod like any other equine.

Satisfied with her outlines, Bryonoth dried the ink on the parchment, and then put her supplies away. She crooned in his ear, gently running her nails against the back of it. Toumoth wallowed in that blissful touch, stomping his hooves delightedly. Before he realized it, she was running the curry through his fur once more. Satisfied, relaxed, and at peace, Toumoth continued to eat his oats. What a lovely night. He was so thankful that no one knew. He hoped no one ever would.

Abafouq had been daydreaming. It was warm in their cave, but only because both he and his keeper Guernef had been within it for nearly two days. After his last flight, Guernef had brought back enough meat for the both of them to last a week. Abafouq had quickly taken to salting it and storing it for the coming days. He had not once gone to check on his rock hanging from the highest peaks. There was little chance that the ice would melt until the April month was nearly over, and so he would not venture up those steep passes again for another few weeks.

So, he stayed inside with the Nauh-kaee that kept him, seeing to his needs and occasionally teaching him some bit of ancient lore that was known to that strange avian race as they watched the world from their mountain peaks. Guernef himself was the Kakikagiget, the Listener of Winds amongst his people. But in the last two days, the only thing to listen to had been the howling of icy snarls outside, and the breathing of the two trapped within.

Abafouq was used to having little to do, and so he daydreamed constantly. Brighter warmer days were his usual fare, or sweet ale brewed by his people in the mountain halls of Qorfuu. That one had been a particular favourite over the past few days. Sometimes he also dreamed about the strange places he had read or heard about from others. There were the shining towers of Metamor gleaming like radiant gems in the soft green Valley, daggers rising up on ever side. The craggy remains of Carethedor in the Great Eastern Range, carved from the very mountains themselves, blending so well in sunlight and night that a passerby might never know where he’d trod. The bustling of harbours at Elvquelin, and the beautiful temples to the Lothanasi pantheon that the city had been built around, the seat of Sathmore.

And then he dreamed of things even more remote, the strange forbidden streets of Sondeshara, clustered together tightly with maze like passages that were all the same. The storm swept plains of Algra, where a man who passed by could be struck by lightning five times within a single day. The simple homes and towers of Eavey, a city built both on the seashore and within the forest. The lost city of Ahdyojiak, surrounded by fell cliffs and choked by cloistering poisonous jungle. All of these and more filled his thoughts, thoughts of any place but the barren upper reaches of the Tabinoq.

Guernef was the first to hear it, a high pitched chirping that descended down the steps to resound whisperingly through the main room of their cave. The great white ears turned, twisting, frigid black eyes focussed inflexibly upon that stair. But the Nauh-kaee said nothing, merely waiting and listening as the sound grew more plaintive. But the Binoq did not take long to recognize it for what it was. His pleasant but bittersweet dreams left behind, the little man listened, and then smiled.

“It is my bird to Qan-af-årael!” he declared in delight. How many days past had he sent it into the air bearing his message – his message telling the ancient Åelf that he intended to journey to Metamor once the thaw came? At that moment, it seemed a lifetime ago, but it was a life he’d lived many times over already.

Guernef made no move, either to confirm or deny the claim that his Binoq charge had made. Seeing nothing in those rigid avian eyes, Abafouq slipped up from his seat, and went to the stair. Climbing the cold stones up to the rookery, the sound of the chirping grew louder. And then, as he broke through the small chamber in which sat the cage, he could see the sparrow with the message fixed to its leg hopping back and forth in front of the wire mesh, eager to find its rest. The weather had battered it, but they were sturdy sparrows, and had flown in worse.

Abafouq gingerly removed the message from its leg, and then opened the cage so that the bird could climb within. It did so, greeting its mate with a flurry of chirping and flapping of wings. Knowing that his keeper would wish to hear this message as well, he climbed back down the stairs, the message unopened. He was greeted by the Nauh-kaee’s unreadable stare, the eyes never leaving him for even a moment. Not even to blink.

“It is from Qan-af-årael,” Abafouq declared, even as he unrolled the tender parchment. Even were it not the same sparrow that he had sent out, he would have known from the feel of the paper. It was smooth, almost silken to the touch, so unlike the greased slips he was forced to use in this clime that froze ink quicker than blood.

Unable to meet Guernef’s gaze, Abafouq looked down to the parchment, and read aloud.

“May the bears give you a ride for your journey. I would have of you only this bring all those our friend at Metamor wishes to Nafqananok in Qorfuu by the beginning of August. My assistant shall meet you there and guide you on the next step. Do not leave for Metamor before the thaw has begun. Timing is essential. I shall see you ere the month of August has ended.”

It was signed with Qan-af’s rune, though both knew the words were his. Abafouq had smiled when he read the first line, for it was a traditional Binoq blessing before beginning an arduous journey. The rest had made him gape. From Metamor to Qorfuu in so short a time? How could they ever hope to accomplish such a feat? And through the Barrier Range no less, as their party would not be safe travelling through the Midlands. Stunned, he looked up to the Nauh-kaee who regarded him thoughtfully.

“How?” Abafouq asked, his voice hollow. He had been asked to live amongst the Nauh-kaee for the last five years, and here, his one chance to go out into the world and prove himself to Qan-af-årael, he’d been set an impossible task.

“I must fly,” Guernef announced.

“Where are you going?”

The Nauh-kaee did not answer immediately, but rose up to all fours and turned towards the entrance to their cave. His long feline tail flicked back and forth, tuft white as the ice. And then, just as his first scaled claw was set upon the steps out, he spoke once more, his natural voice a shrill cry. The words that came to the Binoq’s mind were clear, though shrouded by riddles. “The wind is too quiet.”

Given that Abafouq could hear it racing about from well inside the cave, he did not understand just what his keeper meant by that remark. In the five years he had known the Kakikagiget he had heard many similar declarations about the wind. But never had he heard this particular pronouncement before. And as the Nauh-kaee made his way up the passage to the surface where the snow was doubtlessly billowing, Abafouq decided that he did not like the way this one had sounded.

With little else to do, the Binoq settled back down in his seat, and stared at the parchment, letting his mind wander to warmer climes once more.

It inspired fear anew in the villages it rolled past, villages that had seen it pass in the other direction, heading Northwards, only a few weeks back. Now, it headed Southeast, slowly crawling through the towns, never stopping in any of them, for which the towns folk were glad. They stayed in doors as it passed through, each man and woman quiet, hiding where they could not be seen. Yet that red cross was an eye that pierced all windows, doors, and shutters, stabbing each Follower with a fear that would not leave them. Yet, it was not as painful as the first time, for there was something tangibly different about that black carriage as it rolled past.

Each of them knew what it was, the barest breath upon their lips and hearts, one that none could utter, not under the auspice of that red cross. But when before that black carriage had left town, the people had rejoiced that they had been spared, now they shuddered in fear. Who had they come for, and what would they take back? All wondered, but none would speak of it. Yet, even this was only an afterthought, a bitter one, but still lacking the true force, that single understanding that left every town trembling in its passage. The knowledge that they had been spared were scant comfort compared with that reality. Only pity for those inflicted filled them.

Because the Questioners had finished what they’d journeyed to do.

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